To the Swedish sensation Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Italian has never been an unfamiliar territory. Having spent some of the most proliferative years of his career playing top flight football in Serie A, the ex-Juventus and Inter poacher has immediately delivered excellence among his return in the league – this time albeit to the arch rivals of his former clubs AC Milan.
YEARS AT AJAX: A STAR IN MAKING
Spending the grooming years of his professional career in the Swedish outfit Malmo FF, the striker next moved to Netherlands to join hands with one of the Europe’s most celebrated football club AFC Ajax Amsterdam.
The Dutch unit has always been regarded as one of the best equipped clubs in world football as far as honing of a player’s skills is concerned. A thorough professional approach followed at Amsterdam in sharpening a player’s talent and athleticism is even today reckoned better than the training process followed at some of the bigger clubs.
JUVENTUS: A STAR ENDED UP BEING TERMED SELFISH
His three years at Ajax were the most crucial ones in systemising his abilities and found out a player in him who was all raring to go take on the biggest names in world football. An apt signing awaited him as he moved to Juventus to play under the legendary Italian coach Fabio Capello.
Ibra’s two year stint at Turin was technically a short one but was never short on controversies. After a fruitful first season, he began to lose his touch and Capello often started to use him more from the sidelines, a role playing in which he barely received due chances to register his name into the score sheets.
Although he did manage to provide quality assists, his scoring aspirations often caused team big due to him prolonging the hold over the ball for too long and eventually losing it.
INTER: GOAL MACHINE AGAINST MINNOWS, DUD TO THE BIG TEAMS
Post Calciopoli, though much persuaded by the club’s think-tank, Ibra decided to move on but he did not land too far apart. Juve’s arch rivals Inter Milan bagged the Swede’s services in what could probably be termed a deal that undervalued him.
But any money was good money for Juventus back then and Zlatan was all up to wear the famous Black & Blue colours. Statistically, he enjoyed the fruitiest period of his career with the Nerazzurri as he grabbed 66 goals to his credit in all competitions with 116 starts to his tally.
Ibra already had been infamously deemed selfish during his days with Juventus. While at Inter, despite an unprecedented scoring spree, he was ill-regarded as a demolisher of minnows who could not translate the similar form when facing opponents of equal potential, if not more.
BARCELONA: THE SPANISH GAME WAS NEVER MEANT TO BE HIS
At the end of the 2008-09 season, experts at Inter believed they needed a much more inspirational figure upfront who could deliver impact while contesting in Europe. In a record swap deal, Massimo Moratti grabbed Samuel Eto’o from Barcelona with both hands and in return favour the Catalans hired the services of the Swede.
Barcelona had their own agenda. They had enough impact players who could do wonders in Europe. All they were looking for was a guy who would sustain for over a considerably long period of season and find net at will with the required consistency that maintained the club’s position comfortably frozen at the summit.
The nature of the game in Spain changed in entirety from that in Italy. It kept becoming increasingly difficult for Ibrahimovic to feel at home in completely unfamiliar vicinity. The game at Barcelona heavily relied on a never ending spree of passes and seldom the ace poacher remained the focal point of an attacking move.
One reason for Samuel Eto’o’s unparallel success with the Catalan colours was his oppressive work rate, something that had never been Ibra’s forte. The Swede continued to find things going against him and never really developed a propensity to be involved into play on the pitch other than in the final third.
Dropping deep and winning balls was not exactly something he had been doing in Italy and pretty soon his position in the team started being questioned.
Barcelona needed a much more dyed-in-the-wool striker for the Spanish game and hence extended their budgets to persuade David Villa from domestic rivals Valencia. The indications were clear and before being ostracized off duties, Ibra chose to leave the club.
His much talked fall-out with manager Josep Guardiola only added fuel to the fire and Italian giants AC Milan did not waste any time to make most of the unhealthy situation at Camp Nou. Adriano Galliani, much famous for his negotiation powers, scalped a deal of his life when it more looked like Barcelona were a little too desperate to offload what could be termed a blunder of a deal they made a year ago.
AC MILAN: IBRA’S TIME TO BREAK THE THREE SHACKLES
So, it was time for a return at the San Siro, of course representing the fans that once would have jeered and hooted against him. One very crucial thing to note here is that in all three of his previous outings with three of the biggest clubs in Europe, he kept earning a malignant reputation and more worryingly a different one all the three times.
His two years with the old lady in Turin adjudicated him a self-centred player who focused a little too much on his personal numbers. The criticism worsened at Inter where he was deemed in an incompetent character for the bigger occasions and his recognition went on to be splintered apart in Spanish siesta, as his work rate and game ethic were put under a scanner.
His stint with Milan therefore, was from the very beginning a matter of a global curiosity. So far, one may dare say, he has done exceedingly well and rightly aimed at breaking all the three jinxes he infamously attached to his game. Milan coach Max Allegri shares a part of credit for Ibra’s seamless transition in the Milanesque game as the Swede has delivered an immediate impact.
What has worked in favour of him is, he has clearly observed and identified the weaker areas of his gameplay. Quite categorically the transformation in his game eliminated all the three major hazards with his earlier profile.
Most importantly, he has consciously been able to engage himself into the build-up play, something which is so Italian in nature. Unlike the Spanish game, where a continuance of passes aims at frustrating an opponent and letting him err, the Italian idea of build-up conquers on establishing a linkage between the midfield and the final third.
This is where the major change Ibrahimovic has introduced in his style becomes evident. He plays a very important role in the build-up along with the flank guards on either side.
He has no longer remained a player driven by his hunt for glory and has much improved on his attacking instincts. He has not refrained from aiming at the goal from distance and at the same time has provided numerous assists to his fellow strikers in better positions to score.
His decision making has been better than ever. Another area where he has tremendously excelled is winning possession. His dribbling and holding skills over the ball were never doubted but often he was accused for not doing enough to win the ball.
He tended to rely on the suppliers to find him in the best possible position to proceed further. Ever since his association with Rossoneri however, he has been seen considerably dropping deep enough into the second third. Contrary to reputation, he has involved himself into jostling and hassling with the opposition players to win a ball back. This speaks for his improved and intensified work ethic.
The third and final conjecture about him is that of not being the player for the big moments. Often he has been reduced to not being able to cope up his game to the standards required while facing the bigger oppositions.
During his first season at Milan, he is still in process to break this jinx and one must admit he has done significantly well against the likes of Inter, Real Madrid and Juventus.
As the season progresses, his current form promises to bring more from him. He may not land up at the pole position in the list of season’s top goal scorers but he undoubtedly prospects to be one of the biggest influential figures in the Italian football during the seasons to come.
With able allies in Pato, Robinho and Ronaldinho to shoulder responsibilities with him up front, Ibra looks all set to carry the goals galore legacy at Milan induced by club’s all time greats like Marco van Basten, Filippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko.